The expansive use of plastics in modern society is due to the many different properties of these materials and their low cost. It is important to keep in mind that plastics are made from fossil fuels, petroleum and natural gas, which took millions of years to form. While just a handful of plastic polymers have been formulated, such as polyethylene and polyester, an incredible number of plastic items have been manufactured, many unfortunately for single use. The diverse properties of plastics are due to the numerous additives mixed in during their manufacture. One major class of additives is called plasticizers, chemicals blended into plastics mainly to make the materials softer and more flexible.
Many plasticizers have been identified as potentially harmful chemicals. The one that is probably most known is called BPA, the acronym for bisphenol A (or 2,2‐bis(4‐hydroxyphenyl) propane). BPA is used in the lining of food cans, in numerous plastic food containers and a variety of other materials. The health effects of BPA exposure have been studied for many years and have led to its phase-out in plastic baby bottles in most countries. Most human exposure is from its leaching in canned foods. Another concerning aspect of BPA and other plasticizers is their persistence in the environment. Natural breakdown mechanisms are slow; BPA is detected in many natural environments.
This past spring semester, I worked with a class of students on a mini research project that involved collecting and identifying substances in indoor air. We readily detected compounds that we expected, such as those emitted from scented candles. Each time we tested the indoor air, we detected plasticizers. These substances are slowly released from many plastic items over time, especially plastic materials that become harder or more brittle. The more of these plastic around us, the more we are exposed to these compounds. The CDC website on certain plasticizers states that more research is warranted to better understand the human health effects. Truly, there are many reasons to limit/reduce plastics, many of which are harming God’s gifts of nature and health.
Here is a poem by Valparaiso University student Taylor Oden called “Save the Fish From Plastic.”
“There are plenty of fish in the sea, Swimming around like a bumble bee. Their eyes fear what they cannot see, microplastics in the seas. Broken down plastic smaller than a grain, putting all the fish in vain. It’s taking over their home, destroying everything makes it hard for this living thing. The fish consume microplastics. We consume the fish. We eat the consequences of human waste. Seafood has about 1.48 g of microplastic particles, which is from an article. All our plastic bags we use come back to haunt us even if we refuse. Let’s make change. Everyone of all age. Save the sea. That’s what people and the fish would like to see. STOP USING SO MUCH PLASTIC. THAT WOULD BE FANTASTIC.”
Thank you, Taylor.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.